City bracing for El Niño winter rains

Sandbags, hotlines, clearing drainage channels among efforts

Sandbags surround a home in Imperial Beach that was partially flooded by storms during an El Niño season in 2010. / photo by Peggy Peattie * U-T

Sandbags surround a home in Imperial Beach that was partially flooded by storms during an El Niño season in 2010. / photo by Peggy Peattie * U-T

— From extra sandbags at all fire stations to more aggressive clearing of clogged drainage channels, San Diego city officials are gearing up for what’s expected to be an extremely rainy winter thanks to strong El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

Preparations include establishing two hotlines — one to report blocked drainage channels and one to report flooding — and making city employees available after hours and on weekends to coordinate emergency responses.

Meanwhile, the County Office of Emergency Services held an El Nino preparation summit on Tuesday to discuss steps everyone can take to get ready for potentially heavy rainfall, flooding and soil erosion.

City officials expressed optimism last week that they’ve taken the right steps to prepare for heavy rain, but conceded that many parts of San Diego are still vulnerable.

“While we’ve put forth an unprecedented effort to manage flood risk, there is no guarantee there won’t be flooding this year,” city Transportation and Stormwater director Kris McFadden told the City Council’s Environment Committee. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”

City crews cleared a record six clogged drainage channels this year, but McFadden said they can’t accelerate clearing of other clogged parts of the city’s 84-mile channel system because of environmental regulations and required permits.

He said the El Nino threat is probably not imminent enough to make the city eligible for emergency exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act, but that city officials are exploring that option.

Some local merchants are lobbying the city to do more.

Ed Witt, owner of Witt Lincoln, said the area around his Mission Valley car dealership typically is flooded even in years without extra rainfall prompted by warmer El Nino ocean temperatures.

(This story has been updated to correct name of the Witt auto dealership.)

“Behind Fashion Valley it’s pretty much a disaster,” said Witt, contending that city officials should be more focused on such a commercially vital area as Mission Valley. “I’m going to sandbag my showroom. That’s a hell of a way to run a business.”

Greg Cavanaugh, owner of the 71-unit Capri Lodge mobile home community near Imperial Beach, said overgrowth in the park’s storm drain threatens to cause severe flooding this winter and should be cleared immediately.

“It needs to be done in a big way,” he said.

Other problem areas identified by city officials include Sorrento Valley, Carmel Valley, Sweetwater River, Tijuana River Valley, Grantville, Loma Portal and Murphy Canyon.

They said all canyon neighborhoods are potentially problem areas and stressed that even mesas are at risk of heavy puddling during storms that last multiple days.

Drainage channels with the highest flood risk, which are now scheduled to be cleared during the fiscal year that begins next summer, are Engineer Road in Kearny Mesa, Via De La Bandola in San Ysidro, Rancho Bernardo, Chollas Creek in southeastern San Diego, Auburn Creek in City Heights, Washington Channel in Mission Hills, Cottonwood Channel just north of National City and Parkside Channel just north of Bonita.

The channels cleared this year are Sorrento Creek, Murphy Canyon Creek, Mission Bay High School, San Carlos Creek, Smythe Cannel in San Ysidro and Reservoir Drive near San Diego State.

The city hotline to report blocked drainage channels is 619-235-1000. To report floods, the number is 619-527-7500.

Fire-Rescue Department officials said each of the city’s nearly 50 fire stations has at least 100 sandbags available and that 5,000 additional sandbags are being kept in reserve.

In addition, a 19-member swiftwater crew trains each year to rescue people caught in flooding. Department officials said it’s crucial for drivers to obey all barricades and road closures and stay with their car if trapped.

Weather experts say heavy rains from El Nino are likely, but not certain.

Dr. Dan Cayan from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography told city officials last week that heavy rainfall occurred three of the last four times conditions were similar to this year.

“We have to keep that in mind — this is not a slam dunk,” he said.

If there is heavy rain, he said previous El Nino patterns indicate it will start slowly and become the heaviest in February and March. (619) 269-8906 @UTDavidGarrick


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